Pitt Basketball Tips It Off Tonight

Dave Miller-US PRESSWIRE

Two freshmen are slated to start tonight's opener for Pitt, and that's just one of the key storylines to watch for as the 2012-13 season gets underway.

Pitt tips off its 2012-13 season on Friday night. The basketball team shares a rare Friday night with the football team, as they will kickoff at 8 pm--conveniently when the basketball game should be done.

It might be hard for the next month and a half to gain interest in this Pitt schedule due to football still going on for the next three weeks, a docile non-conference schedule and just the fact that the start of the Big East season is when interest spikes.

This season-opener is a little different. In addition to the usual anticipation of just starting the season, here's a few things to look for starting tonight.

- In talking with the players and coaches, there's a bit of a discrepancy in putting a focus on getting more turnovers this year. Players are already in favor and comfortable with the approach. It helps having a pair of defensive-minded players in Travon Woodall and James Robinson in the back court. Not to mention, a senior-freshman duo that already seems to be clicking (more on that a little later).

Last season, the Panthers ranked 324th in the country with just 4.7 steals a game. They were 269th in turnovr margin, which was -1.6 a game. Granted, there's a lot of Division I teams that factor into these stats, but these numbers are a far cry from the defensive reputation Jamie Dixon has built here.

Woodall notices the added attention this area has been given in the early part of this season.

"I definitely do," Woodall said. "We did a lot of running; a lot of conditioing this offseason. It helped out a lot. It's going to help out our transition game."

Dixon, though, doesn't feel the attention to turnovers is much different from years past.

"It's not the first year we've really emphasized that," Dixon said. "We've tried, forcing turnovers and being one of the best in field goal percentage defense."

- Back to Woodall starting with James Robinson. It's not the first time we've seen a true freshman start the opener during Dixon's tenure. In the past, those that have started have stayed there and done well. DeJuan Blair being the most recent, who went on to a stellar two-year career for the Panthers, and was eventually drafted by the San Antonio Spurs. Chris Taft did not start his first game, but he came off the bench to grab 12 rebounds against Alabama in the 2003-04 opener. Ashton Gibbs was in line to start the 2008-09 opener with Levance Fields' health in question. At the last minute, Fields was able to go. Gibbs still played in 35 games that year.

Regardless of the other examples, its remarkable to see Dixon starting two freshmen for the opener. There's no question that Robinson and Adams are talented, but this is a deep team. There are players such as Trey Zeigler and John Johnson that could start alongside Woodall. Not to mention, in other years, Dixon has given preference to the older players. That was certainly the case last year when Khem Birch was here. Birch began the season coming off the bench behind veterans Talib Zanna and Dante Taylor.

"(Robinson) is a smart kid, he definitely has a basketball IQ," Woodall said. "It's great to talk to someone who has the same type of basketball knowledge you have. If he sees a play, and he doesn't make it, he'll look at me right away and he knows I saw it. We're on the same page."

"(Robinson) could be our best perimeter defender," Dixon said. "He's strong. He has good lateral quickness. He's a better athlete than people thought he was."

- Steven Adams. The freshman from New Zealand comes to Pitt with a lot of hype, and based on some early output from the summer league, how he's responded to Pitt's strength and conditioing program, and how he's played in the early going, there's no reason not to think Adams can't meet the expectations. For Pitt's Monday night game with Lehigh, there have already been 22 scouting requests; a high number for an early season non-conference game.

While it might look like Dante Taylor is relegated to the bench, even a senior like Taylor is impressed with what Adams has brought to the team.

"I'm definitely learning some things from him; things like positioning," Taylor said. "He's definitely learning some things from me, but he has some things that he's physically gifted with--things you can't teach."

Despite Adams being in the lineup, Dixon won't rule out Taylor making a push.

"Steve needs to improve defensively," Dixon added. "Dante is right there with him. We'll see how that plays out. Dante, we'll play him at the four and five. I think him coming off (the bench), he can play both spots. That's something we're looking at. That may factor in as well."

Those are just a few things to watch for this first game, alone. It's not the most exciting non-conference schedule in Pitt history, but watching the freshman debuts of Robinson and Adams is a lot for an opener. And, of course, there's the hope of rebounding from the first missed NCAA Tournament in a decade.

"Last year is last year, this is a new year," Woodall said. "We're out to prove everybody wrong."

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